‘Politics’ comes, of course, from the Greek for ‘many quirks’. But, after 2,500 years of linguistic inflation, a more accurate rendering may actually be ‘inestimable annoyances’. What’s gone wrong? Well, democracy gave power to the people; the people (who had other things to be getting on with) gave power back to the politicians; and politicians soon gave power to the idea that P*l*t*cs is the ultimate societal turn-off. But it need not be so: real, thinkin’-n-feelin’ humans skulk somewhere behind that stupefying acronym ‘MP’; and with a little tweaking – OK, forceful brow-beating – we can make the business of Parliament parley-worthy once more. Here’s how:
1. Politicians, if you’re about to say something so mind-bendingly opaque in its ambiguity, don’t have the cheek of intoning “Let me be clear” before you waffle off into obscurity.
2. First past the post is a sound system, but it’s not yet perfect. Yes, every vote cast should be equal – but if the candidate has not lived in the constituency for the last five years, their vote count should be divided by two; if they have never lived there, by five; if they can’t even spell the place, their final tally should be solemnly multiplied by zero.
3. Combine the chair and lighting from Mastermind, the eclectic topic selection of a multi-pinted Question Time audience, and the interviewing puissance of Andrew Neil. Then invite (habeas corpus?) the day’s most important political figure for a ten-minute topical interview, airing it as the opening section of Newsnight. Politics would be gripping once more.
4. What a royal mess PMQs have become. To bring some order to the exchanges between the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, let’s resurrect the traditional, biweekly session. On Tuesdays, PMQs proceeds with the strict provision that the PM must have provided a direct answer (however knee-jerk) to the question within sixty seconds; if the Speaker detects a failure to do so, the PM must drink a shot of ‘Mr Bercow’s Bitter Liqueur’, before trying again. On Thursdays, by contrast, the entire proceedings are to be conducted through the medium of ‘rap’ (beats by Black Rod; hats may be worn).
5. The Lords, eh! Blink for an instant and they’ve bred another bench – here the Baron Hardsell of Wallett Magna, there the Baroness Worthy of Spadwell. To prune them mercifully back to a manageable number, Latin should be restored as the lingua franca of the house. Some of the hereditary peers, a crop of the Lords Spiritual, and the savviest ex-cabinet ministers may be able to muddle through with basic sentences. But for most, their commitment to the cause will be sorely tested: only those who toil hard enough over their amo-amas amalgams will actually survive in the chamber. The rest will simply wander off, an ermine-clad gaggle of disconsolate dropouts.
6. The cringe-inducing image of a politician in a hard hat or hi-vis jacket is now trite in the extreme. Instead of playing dress-up for the cameras, politicians must ‘earn’ the relevant prop they want to don by doing one full day’s hands-on labour for the industry in question. (Their pay should, literally, be peanuts.)
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7. Forcibly impose the changing of lamentably common parliamentary names to the weird and wonderful, lest constituents fail to recollect their own MP. Some names in need of spice: Chris Evans, Kate Green, Sarah Jones, Jeff Smith; some decent efforts: Guto Bebbs, Vernon Coaker, Philip Hollobone, Kit Malthouse; some outstanding work: Thanham Debbonaire, Jonathan Djangoly, Kwasi Kwarteng, Emily Little Pengelly.
8. Cabinets have become overfilled – and yet understocked. They should contain no more than ten ministers: Home Things (‘Affairs’ should be retired after some infamous misunderstandings), Foreign Things, Money Things, Mobile Things, Immobile Things, Education Things, Healthy Things, Green Things, Just Things, and (the challengingly broad-briefed) Other Things. As well as facilitating discussion, this would allow for truly competitive sport. Every quarter, the cabinet and shadow cabinet Elevens should play a charity game of football, cricket or lacrosse (with chief whip as 12th man); the winning side gets to guest-edit the Today programme.
9. We sorely need to reach out to the youth. Accordingly, South Korean animators should produce uncompromisingly explicit interpretations of the week in politics. Think the opening sequence of This Week, but spliced together with angry manga by a ‘disgruntled civil servant’ working on a cocktail of sambuca, methylphenidate and Refreshers.
10. Politicians are human. As such, they can lay claim to fluid minds capable of rational thought. They should therefore feel free to break the Sacred Shibboleth of The Press – that politicians should never change their mind. Almost every policy deviation is not, for those familiar with entry-level geometry, a ‘U-turn’. MPs, embrace those three words: ‘Something has changed’.
11. The scale of screen-swiping throughout PMQs is a disgrace. Not in Machell’s Name. John Bercow, and all his noble successors as Speaker, should wear a Noddy-style ‘Concentration-hat’ that causes a Twitter-cum-Facebook blackout within a 50-metre radius. (The press lobby may wear biohazard suits, and wrap their quivering devices in tin-foil, to escape this necessary imposition.)
12. Ministers, defeat the policy to which you object by reasoned counter-argument and careful costing. Don’t just fetch a whiteboard to hammer out a glib, two-word alliterative label for the tax / charter / bill that will guarantee the most traction with the press. You are paid to think critically.
13. The following phrases should be banned from PMQs: ‘Would my honourable friend agree with me that…’; ‘I’ve received a tweet from Terry, who…’; ‘this isn’t just a [insert humdrum phrase] government, *unbearable pause*, it’s a <wheel out abject pun> government’. And never, ever use the phrase, ‘I have full confidence in X’, unless you wish to advertise to the electorate that you’re on the very verge of losing all conceivable confidence in X.
14. Politicians – and journalists – acquire a memory that extends beyond one term of Parliament. Almost anything proposed by a party has been proposed in the past, and in most cases from several quarters of the house. So, before you cough up your internal organs in outrage, discover whether your own party has propounded the very thing you find ideologically so unconscionable.
15. Saturday is treat day: no politician should be seen or heard, online, on air, or on the street. Let bliss ensue.